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Columbus goalie Steve Mason starring in NHL far ahead of schedule

COLUMBUS, Ohio - In early November, Steve Mason was just another promising minor leaguer.

Now he's the hottest goaltender in the NHL.

The 20-year-old emerging star also has given hope to the once hopeless Columbus Blue Jackets, the only current NHL franchise to never appear in the post-season.

"A lot has happened in a short period of time," said Mason, who is playing his first season of professional hockey at any level. "There's been a lot of hard work that's been put into it. It's nice to get rewarded for it. We still have a lot of work to do. But I'm sure it's going to be just as much fun as the first month."

The numbers say that opposing teams aren't having nearly as much fun as he is.

The kid from Oakville, Ont., has a 15-9-1 record and leads the NHL with six shutouts, a 1.75 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage. He's allowed two or fewer goals in 18 of his 25 starts.

Much of what he has accomplished has come with the Blue Jackets severely limited by injuries. Several top players were sidelined Friday night when Mason stopped 45 shots and beat Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals 3-0 - the second time he's shut them out in as many starts this season.

"He was as good as any goaltender I have seen this year," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said Monday. "Look at both games and how many shots he faced (71). We could not beat him - and we have good personnel."

The best teams have taken notice of the six-foot-four, 212-pound rookie.

"We knew coming in that it probably wasn't going to be a goalfest on the guy," Red Wings goalie Ty Conklin said after the defending champs beat Mason on Jan. 6. "He's been playing outstanding. He's not making saves look difficult out there, either."

Selected in the second round of the 2006 draft by the Blue Jackets, Mason always has been one of the organization's prized players. He has been brilliant at every level of junior and led Canada to a gold medal in last year's world junior championship by going 5-0-0 with a 1.19 goals-against average to earn tournament MVP honours.

The Blue Jackets planned to have him spend a year at Syracuse of the American Hockey League to gain experience and grow accustomed to the travel, training and even the down time of a professional hockey life.

When Columbus starter Pascal Leclaire suffered an ankle injury, however, Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson and coach Ken Hitchcock decided to send the youngster out against Edmonton on Nov. 5.

Not only was it Mason's first NHL start, it was only his fourth start as a professional. But he won that night and has been outstanding ever since.

Even Hitchcock, who has coached or coached against some Hall of Fame goalies in his 14 years as an NHL head coach, is impressed by his goalie's consistency.

"It's not like he's on a hot streak," Hitchcock said. "This is just normal play for him."

Veteran forward Michael Peca shakes his head as he glances across the dressing room at the rosy-cheeked Mason, who is laughing at a joke with fellow rookie Jake Voracek. Peca can't recall seeing a young goaltender with such a mix of size and athleticism.

"He's just a very technically sound goaltender," Peca said. "When you're big and athletic at the same time as being positionally sound, you're not giving up a whole lot. We have played pretty well in front of him, but he has made some spectacular saves at important times in games."

Hitchcock credits Mason's mental gifts as much as the physical ones.

"When you have hockey sense, the learning curve is always accelerated - and he has goalie sense," he said. "He has a great read of the game in front of him."

Mason's rise has fuelled talk of the Blue Jackets, who are a point out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, making their post-season debut. Suddenly, vendors are hawking "Stonewall Mason" T-shirts before games and hockey has replaced Ohio State football as the talk of Columbus.

Mason tries not to get starry-eyed as he sees Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, San Jose's Joe Thornton, Calgary's Jarome Iginla or others coming at him.

"Every time you're playing a team there's probably going to be one player on that team that you grew up looking up to," he said. "It's kind of neat to see them on the other team. But at the same time, you can't really look at it that way."

Back in Oakville, his parents, Donna and Del, and sister Melanie, watch all his games on television. Several aunts and uncles and cousins live within walking distance, so when the Blue Jackets play the whole Mason family gets together to root for the kid in the No. 1 sweater.

"Honestly, I'm a nervous wreck," Donna said. "I'm trying to help him out, doing kick saves while sitting on the couch."

Growing up, Mason was not a devout fan of the nearby Toronto Maple Leafs or even the Canadiens (his mother grew up in Montreal). He followed goaltenders. He bought his first set of goalie pads at age 10 with money earned from his newspaper route. His bedroom is painted red and black - the colours of the New Jersey Devils and his favourite goalie, Martin Brodeur.

The Blue Jackets already had a lot of young players even before injuries caused them to call up a number of rookies who would have trouble growing playoff beards. The veterans not only accept but seem to be fond of Mason and the others.

Still, there are generational differences.

"Usually you leave the goaltenders alone. I try not to talk too much to them, so I don't bug them," 29-year-old defenceman Mike Commodore said. "The only thing I can see is this guy (Mason) text-messages like I've never seen before. He text-messages constantly. It's unbelievable. It really is. It's like his phone is attached to his hand."

Voracek laughed out loud at the older guy trying to understand his younger teammate.

"If Mase is going to play like he's been playing, he can do whatever he wants," he said.

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